Use of language in To Kill a Mockingbird

The language Harper Lee uses in her novel is very realistic and it aims to accurately portray what life was like in a small rural community like Maycomb in the southern states of America in the 1930s. The children use the colloquial language you would expect whilst talking to their friends and family, although sometimes they are chastised by Atticus for using inappropriate language, especially when Scout uses the same racist term for black people as she has heard in the neighbourhood.

Although Harper Lee’s writing style is mainly realistic and quite straightforward she is also able to use it to cleverly create tension and suspense when needed. This can be seen in particular at the end of the novel just before and during Bob Ewell’s attack on Jem and Scout. I took one giant step and found myself reeling: my arms useless, in the dark, I could not keep my balance Scout tells the reader.

Harper Lee uses colourful figurative language (similes, metaphors, personification) to create images in her readers' minds. She also uses humorous language which is sometimes there to highlight a character’s misunderstanding of a certain situation, such as when Bob Ewell does not understand some of the questions he is asked in court, especially those concerning whether or not he is left handed. As Scout tells the reader, Mr Ewell turned angrily to the judge and said he didn’t see what his being left-handed had to do with it, that he was a Christ-fearing man and Atticus Finch was taking advantage of him.

When analysing the language Harper Lee has used, aim to:

  • Examine words and phrases.
  • Think about the sort of words she chose (positive, negative, descriptive).
  • Explore layers of meaning (what else could a phrase refer to or suggest?)
  • Notice any literary techniques (similes, metaphor, alliteration).
  • Explain the effects of the language used - how does it make you feel?